My Year in: Software Development

Just like those lists of best albums and books of the year, I’m writing this almost a month before 2015 ends, this time with a compelling reason: I just took time off from writing software until the end of December. And this may be the fact of the year in my life as a software developer, if you consider I hadn’t taken time off in about 3 years and about 25 days of vacation, total, this decade.

But let’s start from the beginning: in January this year I was deep into a startup project that I had started from scratch 14 months earlier. To give you an idea of the difficulty in launching a startup, I am informed that the startup in question has not been launched yet, even with some very competent people working on it.

I had helped specify the product from day one, focus the scope, personally drew wireframes, recommended and was working with the design team, had picked the technology for the backend (Ruby on Rails), had helped hire and was working together with 4 programmers developing the web, iOS and Android apps for the MVP.

The MVP was and is quite ambitious in scope. Fortunately, the founder and funder is a patient, experienced businessman (although this is his first digital venture) able to keep at it for over 2 years.

At the beginning of the year it was getting clearer to me I had to be working on a subject which I felt more natural affinity for. I was learning a lot about programming, but I envisioned the future, and imagining success for the company, I couldn’t see myself happy over the long run in the company’s problem space, even though it’s a legitimate one.

When that feeling became clear, I spoke with the founder and we looked at alternatives for a transition. Finding good programmers available was very hard, as it always is. I suggested we hire Code Miner 42, a respected Rails firm in Brazil, and so we did.

The transition had to be well done and smooth, so I stayed and worked with two Code Miner programmers besides the mobile guys in our team for 5 months. They had a lot to teach me, which I already wrote about in another post. Despite the fact that we had only 2 programmers allocated from them, it was fun to witness how everybody at Code Miner would go into our repo at any time and throw in suggestions, and that’s dozens of people. Code Miner’s lead developer, Fábio Akita, is a very experienced programmer, and worked on our code base for two days in which he gave excellent contributions.

In my free time I was studying both Angular and React. One of my biggest mistakes in that long project was not using any javascript framework from the beginning, only Coffeescript and a lot of jQuery. It would have been fine for a prototype but the interface grew very sophisticated, completely ajaxy, and progress was slower than it could have been. Getting other coders to embrace the frontend code base was hard – by this year, they expected Ember to be there since it was part of Code Miner’s stack.

It became increasingly clear that React was gaining traction over Angular 1, and Angular 2 was taking longer than expected to go public. Gradually, I focused more of my attention on React and by June was studying only React in my free time. Boy did I hate JSX, and still do, but the overall architecture feels much better than Angular. The JavaScript world is a mess at this point, but a happy one with lots of great invention including stuff that isn’t JavaScript like Elm.

In July I accepted a shorter project helping out Moccato launch its coffeepod subscription service, which needed work on the frontend urgently. It was very gratifying to be able to help quickly and effectively, and I was so in tune with the Rails stack by then that everything flowed very quickly for an application of their size.

Earlier I had had a conversation with a friend who was working on a peer-to-peer food distribution service, Comida da Gente, and wanted to have me on board. He mentioned he was building the backend in Clojure, and sang the praises of functional languages. I was aware of the rising popularity of FP, and started looking more seriously. I already had played with Clojure itself, but couldn’t bear all the parens everywhere – I’m certainly a Ruby guy when it comes to not using weird, non-alphanumeric characters in my programs unless I’m pretty much forced to. I had been hearing more and more about Elixir, and finally ended up at their website. I installed the language in about one line in the terminal, played around for an hour, and felt like coming back to do more the next day. And the next. And the next. I thought pattern matching was strange but fun and a valid way to organize code, and knew I couldn’t at all see the big picture yet. But I was having a good time, and Elixir’s website, as well as the language itself, are organized with such a generous learning curve it’s totally captivating. Of course over time I learned that the whole ecosystem José Valim and many people are creating is getting to be totally amazing.

I had an old idea in mind that, upon learning a bit of Phoenix (Elixir’s framework), I decided to mess around with right away. I called it Look in Tens, and you can read more about it here. As a matter of fact, my time off this December may become time on this project. Phoenix is crazy fast in case you haven’t heard.

In September I started work with Comida da Gente. It was time to use React for something real. Look: it was hard. Javascript was at such a transition state (which it still is to a very large extent) picking anything was gruesome: build system (Grunt, Gulp, Brunch, Fly? Went with Gulp after many comparisons, only to bump into Webpack a little later), JS version itself (go with ES6 right away or wait a little longer? Went with it right away. Babel? Yeah.), talking to data (flux? Reflux? This new kid Redux? Went with Reflux, saw it was a mess, moved to Redux two months later, it’s much better). Midway you see Cycle.js, RxJS and you’re simply not sure you’re making the best choice. It’s truly stressing.

The design for Comida da Gente’s MVP wasn’t finished so I did a few days of that too. For that I learned Sketch. Sketch is all right, I expected more from seeing people going nuts about it, but it felt slow and the symbol system was still pretty naive. However, I liked the ease of exporting bitmaps and the libraries of vectors like the iOS stuff and material design. Very neat indeed, and I see new versions of Sketch coming out – I’ll check it again soon.

It took me a really long time to develop what I did at Comida da Gente. Just a basic authentication system with a sign-up form after Facebook authentication took a couple of months. Facebook has no integration of its APIs with React, such as in the login button or anything, so it was just tough. I did implement a beautiful geosuggest with Google Maps and the interface has some nice easy ways to do stuff, but I was almost ashamed about how long it took me to do that. Oh well…now I know much more about React, Redux and that ecosystem, and as it always happens, at this point can implement that stuff with a few copies and pastes. Many people were very generous towards me, and I thank Dan Abramov and Andrew Nguyen among others for showing me the way.

Finally, again it became clearer I needed to actively look for a project whose actual subject I deeply cared about. Nothing was falling on my lap which I loved, as much as I did my best to fall in love with what I was doing — and it had nothing to do with code. So I decided to finally stop and actively look for projects in areas which I simply care about, related to stuff I read in my free time. Those are finance, value investing, education, design and books. By the way, if you know of something interesting in those areas, please let me know: gustavo [at] poe.ma :)))))

I think next year will be great in software. Who knows what will happen to the Unicorn valuations? Maybe they will collapse and anybody with some money will be able to hire the most amazing engineers to build new stuff. Maybe they will grow to trillions and make no sense. And who gives a damn? I actually do. It’s a great spectator sport.

I thank every one whom I worked with this year, every one with whom I exchanged ideas, inspiration and knowledge, and wish you all a great 2016.

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